Four things we’ve learned from CRTC’s usage-based billing debacle

It’s over, thankfully. It ended as quickly as it began, and good thing too. The UBB debacle is resolved, and while questions remain about the future of Canada’s telecom industry, for now we can rest assured that our monthly bills will be in tact. So what have we learned from this firestorm?

1. The CRTC can make some very dumb decisions on a large scale.

The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, created in 1976, is responsible for regulating telecommunication carriers in Canada. As everyone very well knows by now, the CRTC announced a decision to let internet service providers charge by internet usage (commonly referred to as usage-based billing, or the now-notorious acronym, UBB). This decision would effectively double the monthly internet bills of many Canadian consumers and throw our country back into the Stone Age (in internet years). 

Everybody but the CRTC seemed to realize this, as clearly demonstrated by both the general public’s backlash and all three major governments declaring opposition to the decision.

2. Consumers are passionate about their Internet.

A firestorm brewed almost instantly after the CRTC announced the decision, with consumers triggering an onslaught of public anger through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Very few had anything good to say about the CRTC, nor ISPs like Bell, Rogers, and Telus, which already are often targets of consumer frustrations.

The notion of significantly higher internet bills fueled a fire already burning hot from low data caps set by ISPs (that make Netflix almost useless) and ludicrously marked-up overage fees in excess of 10,000 percent (such as charging over $1 for less than a penny’s worth of data). Canadians are usually a relatively tranquil bunch – but clearly not when they feel they’re being taken advantage of.

3. Online petitions do wield influence.

Vancouver-based OpenMedia launched an online petition opposing UBB, spearheaded by a campaign called Stop the Meter. Within days, it accumulated nearly 400,000 signatures, with growth accelerating further each day. Had the Prime Minister not stepped in immediately, the petition could easily have cracked the one million mark.

But, somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t take that much. Even though OpenMedia itself was initially skeptical of the power of online petitions, at only 200,000 signatures, the NDP and Liberals were already taking stances, and only a day later Stephen Harper echoed Industry Minister Tony Clements’ comments about officially reviewing the CRTC’s decision. While not necessarily directly accountable, OpenMedia’s petition rapidly raised awareness and gave governments numbers to work with, making them realize just how many Canadians thought it was a bad idea.

5. Politicians have brains. (Sometimes.)

The NDP and Liberals both called the CRTC’s decision “anti-competitive.” Tony Clements hinted that the Conservative government may review the decision, and the following day Stephen Harper made it official. Then, the very same day that CRTC’s chairman defended his organization’s decision, Stephen and co. overruled it, to the relief of millions of Canadians.

The fact that the government didn’t dawdle up until the looming March 1st date of implementation is a rare example of startlingly fast turnaround – especially when the turnaround is to the benefit of consumers. Of course, it’s all politics, not altruism – but we have to take what we can get, right?